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With major COVID backlog, US citizens in Israel struggle to renew passports

New policy allows citizens to enter US on expired passports, but doesn’t enable return trip back to Israel

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Illustrative: A US passport (vlana/iStock/Getty Images)
Illustrative: A US passport (vlana/iStock/Getty Images)

It’s been four months since Michael Friedlander started trying to book an appointment to renew his daughter’s passport at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

Friedlander and his 9-year-old girl Yael have a ticket to fly to the United States on August 8, but he still doesn’t have an appointment.

Consular services for US citizens in Israel have been profoundly affected by lockdowns and other safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic. The problem is widespread, with a significant backlog at embassies worldwide and in the US, according to a US embassy spokesperson in Israel.

In response to the backlog, United States citizens are now allowed to enter the US on passports that expired as of January 2020, prior to the start of the pandemic.

View of the US Consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood,on March 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash 90)

But what happens when travelers like Michael and Yael Friedlander want to head back to Israel after a 10-day visit?

“The US has made this exception but we’re permanent residents of a different country,” said Friedlander. “We don’t have enough time to renew her passport while we’re in the US.”

The new policy is intended to assist American citizens returning to the US and once there, they should renew their passports at a passport agency, a process that can take 10 to 12 weeks, said the US embassy spokesperson. The process can be expedited to 4-6 weeks, at a cost of $60.

“There’s a lack of clarity about how to get home the right way, legally,” said Friedlander.

Asked if dual citizens would be allowed to fly back home on their Israeli passports, the embassy spokesperson said that consular services encourage US citizens to renew their passports while in the States, as American citizens are required to exit the US on their American passports.

According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs website, routine renewal of passports takes 6-8 weeks and can be done without an appointment at post offices, libraries or county courts. Expedited appointments take 2-3 weeks. A passport can be renewed in eight business days with an appointment booked online for passport agency locations, based on a life and death emergency or travel taking place within two weeks.

Michael Friedlander and his daughter, Yael, left, a few years ago (Courtesy Michael Friedlander)

Friedlander, who travels to the US four times a year for work, said he often ends up mistakenly presenting his Israeli passport in the US without any problems, but he doesn’t want to rely on that possibility.

He’s one of many US citizens in Israel grappling with this issue, as summer vacation approaches and families want to reunite after the long coronavirus separation.

“I’ve probably spent 40 hours cumulatively looking for an appointment,” said Friedlander, who joined numerous WhatsApp groups of fellow frustrated American immigrants, and downloaded an app that helped refresh the US embassy in Israel website in order to find an available appointment.

The Jerusalem embassy and its extension in Tel Aviv drastically reduced their in-person services starting in March 2020, though they still grant some appointments, according to a US Embassy spokesperson.

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are two of the largest US citizen services units in the world, according to the spokesperson, who estimated that around 15,000 US-Israeli citizens may need passport or consular reports of birth abroad (CRBA) services.

Some consular services can be completed through the mail, but children’s passports must be renewed in person.

“We are currently doing more US citizen services than we were before the pandemic, but we still need to work through the extensive backlog,” said the spokesperson.

Friedlander, a dual citizen of the US and Israel, has been living in Israel for the last nine years. As the CFO of an Atlanta company, he takes one of his four kids with him each summer to visit his family there.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” said Friedlander. “I didn’t realize how many others were struggling for so long — the WhatsApp group opened up my eyes. Some people have been doing this for over a year.”

By May, Friedlander decided to put together a petition, gathering signatures from fellow US citizens in Israel struggling with the same issue.

It snagged 1,000 signatures within less than a week, and Friedlander sent it to his Georgia senators, the White House and the embassy in Israel. As of Thursday, there were more than 2,200 signatures on the petition.

“I still can’t get an appointment, I can’t get a clear answer on how we are supposed to travel back to Israel on an expired passport, and it’s not feasible to get one renewed in the states in less than 10 days,” lamented Friedlander.

In the meantime, he’s discovered a black market in Israel where one can pay NIS 500 (around $153) for an appointment, as well as a company that employs a team and algorithms to get appointments for desperate travelers.

“I won’t go that route but can see how it makes it impossible for most regular people to get an appointment,” he said. “I feel like we have been reduced to vultures.”

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